When Tonya Boyd took her first emergency medical technician (EMT) class in the mid-’90s, she had no idea that two decades later she’d be the first African-American female deputy chief of the New York Fire Department. At the time, Boyd was enrolled at Long Island University as a nursing student and decided to take a break from the program to tend to a family matter. Shortly afterward, Boyd says, she decided to take the EMT class as a favor to a friend.
“She asked me to take it with her so I could help drill her for the test, but I ended up really enjoying it,” Boyd said.
After the course, Boyd got a job with a private ambulance service. She applied for a position with the New York Fire Department in 1996 with the idea that it would be a brief pit stop before going back to nursing school.
“I intended to come to the department, work there for a year, then go back,” Boyd said. “My grandmother was a nurse, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. But after getting into the work and bonding with the people in the Fire Department, I fell in love with it. And here I am, 21 years later.”
But getting “here” wasn’t easy. Boyd was an EMT for seven years, then was encouraged to go through the paramedic program. After having that role for a while, Boyd successfully took the test to become lieutenant, a position she would hold for four years before being appointed to captain. She was only the second female captain on the Emergency Medical Services side of the department. Now, as deputy chief of the Fire Department of the City of New York, Boyd is assigned to Queens, where her primary responsibility is to respond to mass casualty incidents in that borough and oversee two EMS stations that consist of about 160 members.
Boyd’s promotion has been a source of inspiration for women all over the country, and it’s a distinction that she doesn’t take lightly.
“I really believe this promotion means a lot to the minority women in this department for one, who believed that the highest they could go was lieutenant,” Boyd said. “An overwhelming amount of women in various fields, not just in fire, have reached out to me and told me how much this has inspired them and encouraged them to reach higher. For me, that has been the biggest reward, getting the feedback from other women and knowing I’ve inspired them.”
It’s no secret that fire departments all over the country are male-dominated. When asked whether she felt it was challenging being so outnumbered by men in the department, Boyd pointed out that there are challenges on every job.
“There’s no question that us women are outnumbered, probably about 70/30, but you can’t look at it that way,” Boyd said. “It’s about doing a good job and being credible and reliable. I wanted my work to show that I can work just as hard, if not harder than any man out there.
“My mother would tell me not to focus on the negative, and to never let someone else’s negative become mine. I choose to focus on the positive, and that’s what has helped me. If you take everything personally, you’ll get caught up in the moment, and I didn’t want to get caught in the moment. I wanted to always move forward.”
Boyd attributes a great deal of her success to the men and women who served as mentors to her. One in particular was her dear friend Carene Brown, a former instructor in the department who is now deceased. Boyd says Brown, who died seven years ago, encouraged her to keep going further, taking more courses and learning more.
Working in emergency response for many years in New York, Boyd has seen some hard days, but none as hard as 9/11.
“It was the worst day of my life,” she recalled. “I worked the evening shift that day, and I remember so many in my department were missing. Imagine the people that you work with every day, that have become your family, the people you discuss the most personal things with. These people are now unaccounted for. It’s a tearing feeling in your chest, not knowing where they are.
“I lost a dear friend of mine that day, Ricardo [Quinn]. And a few months after that, my EMT partner committed suicide. We all believe it was delayed impact from that day. For most years, on 9/11, I stay home and make it a quiet and disconnected day. I don’t get on social media and I don’t watch television. It’ll always be such a somber day.”
Boyd says the best piece of advice she’s received, and the advice she’d pass on to any woman out there with big goals, came from her mother. “My mother always told me to hold my head high. When it came to this job, she always reminded me how intelligent I am, and how I’m just as good as anyone else. She’d tell me to ‘show them your heart’ and ‘do good in your actions.’ I would give the same advice to anyone else.”
One thing that is certain about Boyd — the medical field is her passion. When asked what she’d be doing if she wasn’t working in this capacity, she responded, “I’ve always loved animals, so I could definitely see myself working as a veterinarian.”
Boyd is buckling up for the new road ahead and planning to serve the citizens of Queens well as deputy chief, all while planning her September 2018 wedding with her fiancé, Edwin Laing.